Inside the Land Rover factory as it resumes production after lockdown

As the British 4x4 maker emerges from shutdown, we had exclusive access to its Solihull factory this week to see how it's managing change

Land Rover factory visit - Solihull - 20/05/20 - first Range Rover off the production line after the coronavirus-related shutdown
Result: the first Range Rover off the production line at JLR's Solihull factory since it shut down on March 23 Credit: ELLIOT DONNELLY

The visor doesn’t make things easy. Your voice reflects back into your ears, it rattles against your specs and you can hear 5/8ths of bugger all. The high-vis jacket is hot and clingy, and I’m trying to remember the emergency number from the second of the two videos I’ve had to sit through before being allowed on the site; that was between the temperature checks and the issue of PPE and the hand sanitiser. 

Richard Baker, the communications manager at Land Rover’s factory in Solihull, is trying to tell me something about yellow paint, while a formation dance team of Range Rovers pirouettes around us, beeping horns in warning. 

Just for a second, I stare and savour the sheer syncopated joy of a factory coming back to life, secretly humming something boppy by The Chic Organisation; it’s a good fit.

Welcome to Land Rover’s oldest factory, where the great models of the past, including the original 1948 Land Rover and 1970 Range Rover, were developed and built. Like a sleeping dragon, the entire 300-acre facility has been mothballed since March 23 due to the coronavirus lockdown, with most of its 9,000 staff furloughed at home, but not all. The last time this land-locked site at the former Wharhall and Fordrove farms sat idle for longer was between 1938 and 1939 when the Government’s hastily erected shadow factory sat empty waiting for hostilities to commence and production of Bristol Hercules aircraft engines to begin.

PPE rules: English (centre) conducts his interviews with JLR employees under the factory's strict social distancing and protective guidelines Credit: ELLIOT DONNELLY

“It’s a completely new experience for all of us,” says Grant McPherson, Jaguar Land Rover’s (JLR) executive director of manufacturing. “I’ve never seen a car factory lie dormant for this length of time, ever.”  

Mind you, as McPherson says: “We’ve done a lot of prep for this, the management team have been absolutely fabulous in getting this all ready.”

Some understatement, as Baker does a back-of-fag-packet calculation coming up with 150,000 working hours, which have been spent preparing the factory for reopening. The plant builds JLRs larger vehicles; the Range Rover, Range Rover Sport, Velar and the Jaguar F-Pace. 

The numbers are boggling: “There are 800 processes in final assembly alone,” says Adrian Price, trim and final technology manager. “There are 6,000 part combinations and 2,800 parts to fit. We’ve had to make a thorough examination of how we build the car; this has been a significant challenge.”

Everyone wears full protective equipment. Safety videos and the latest good practice are prerequisites to resuming work on the production line and throughout the factory Credit: ELLIOT DONNELLY

And that goes for the plant’s suppliers, too. “It isn’t just us starting up,” says McPherson, “but also our supply base; literally hundreds of firms, which have had to do what we are doing, but before us – and they’ve got their suppliers as well, the second tiers.

“There was a degree of nervousness over whether we would get all the parts,” he says, “because if there’s just one sequenced part missing then that car can’t be built. There was a lot of work there and I have to say they’ve been superb.”

As for the staff, well Land Rover has been in touch throughout lockdown. “Adrian [Price] has sent personal messages telling them where the process is,” says Baker. “We’ve sent brain-busters to challenge them as well as suggestions on what to do with the kids when they’re at home; everything to inform and involve them. And we’re surveying the staff before and after each day and including their suggestions, such as getting in and out of the car park where we’re temperature testing and holding things up – we’ve put in some changes there.”

Modern car-making is a choreographed dance routine with its own logic and language; takt times, methods time measurement, hierarchies, line speed, line feed. New and stringent safety requirements have to be sequenced, trained for, explained and signed for.

Social distancing in operation on the normally labour-intensive production line Credit: ELLIOT DONNELLY

“We’re following the Government guidelines and those of our own chief medical officer, we’ve made a risk tree,” says Baker. “Every employee signs a charter to say they will abide by the guidelines.”

Like a lot of the motor industry, Land Rover has been making PPE for the NHS and approved frontline organisations, up to 14,000 face visors per week, so the additional 4,000 units devoted to the single shift of 2,500 staff who’ve come in hasn’t been a problem. 

That’s about a third of the production staff but in addition, as Price explains, the 250-strong leadership team came in early so they could help devise and understand the processes, plus team leaders from the other shifts to help make the system work and keep an eye on quality in these new times.

Again, the numbers boggle: more than 1,000 new signs, one-way systems in offices, hundreds of screens at desks and tables, vastly reduced space in the canteens, with similarly screened seating alongside the production lines. There’s an eight-point Covid-19 safety video, professionally done, which everyone has to watch; every time health secretary Matt Hancock stands up and changes the guidance, it all has to be re-shot and everyone has to see it again.

The factory can produce two cars in just over a minute. The production line now runs much slower due to changes in working practices Credit: ELLIOT DONNELLY

“We’ve used hundreds of metres of yellow tape to mark the floor for distancing and gallons of yellow paint for the same outside. Potential sources of cross-infection, the microwaves, fridges and vending machines are closed,” says Nigel VanOmmeran, FA2 manufacturing manager.

In other words, if you want food, bring it with you, though VanOmmeran and his team have, like the James Garner ‘Scrounger’ character in The Great Escape movie, managed to find a load of samovars so you can at least get a cup of that vital car-making lubricant, tea.

And the cleaning... As well as disinfectant wipes and hand sanitiser (‘Made With Love In Solihull’ it says on every bottle), the cleaners are out there seemingly constantly wiping down everything that you could conceivably touch or brush against. Each job and shift change means the tools, fixtures and jigs are all wiped down.

“It’s a confidence boost to see it,” says VanOmmeran. “And we’re trialling different ideas and listening to the workforce. None of this would work if we simply told people what to do.”

Russ Hickin drives finished vehicles off the line. Even that seemingly straightforward part of the process is now very different  Credit: ELLIOT DONNELLY

Even the unions, which these days work closely with employers, are supportive of Solihull’s return to work. “Unite’s health and safety reps and JLR have worked hard to make sure that staff can carry out their duties at the Solihull plant safely,” says Des Quinn, Unite’s national officer for automotive. “We’re working with other major auto makers, as well as companies throughout the supply chain, to ensure rigorous social distancing and hygiene measures are in place across the sector. It is imperative that we get the UK’s world-beating auto industry up and running again.”

Car making is a big, tough unsentimental business, but when I learned what happened on Monday morning (May 18) I find an unexpected piece of grit in my eye. At five o’clock in the morning, as the first shift came in, every single production manager was out in the car park to greet their returning staff.

“We welcomed every single person back,” says McPherson. “And while it seemed strange not to be able to shake hands, all the management team were there. 

“Of course, there were those who were a bit nervous about coming back, but when they saw the preparations, had their temperature checked, the training was done and the PPE issued and they were back on the line getting the job done, that all evaporated.”

English sweats in his PPE and hi-viz to get the inside story Credit: ELLIOT DONNELLY

There have been those who have been unhappy about things and Price says those people have been taken seriously, with changes made where appropriate.

So what’s it like to witness? Like a car factory in slow motion, I’d say, but you can see staff figuring out the difficult, close-quarter jobs for themselves, wearing a visor when that’s the only way of getting the job done. 

Production numbers are low, of course. At full chat the plant will produce two cars in just over a minute; on Tuesday it produced 60 Range Rovers in total: “It’s a very slow start,” admits McPherson.

Faz Rafiq, a group leader, came back two weeks before the restart to help get things ready. “I’m part of a team,” he says, “maximising safety and putting risk assessments in place. You could see people were apprehensive at first as it’s all new, but they are sticking to guidelines, waiting at crossings for example, and confidence is being boosted.”

Employees are greeted at the factory gates with full protective equipment so they feel confident about returning to work Credit: ELLIOT DONNELLY

Russ Hickin drives the finished cars off the end of the line. His job has been changed now, so he takes the cars through several stages to prevent cross-contamination with colleagues. “It’s a car for life; mine,” he grins, “but we’re checking and double checking everything for safety and quality.”

There’s a lot of incoherent and silly words being said to the media right now from folk who should know better about how we can emerge from lockdown without cars but not using public transport either. I almost never wave the flag for car makers, but looking at the titanic efforts being made to get this factory moving again it’s hard not to recall what Bernd Pischetsrieder, former boss at BMW, Seat and VW, said to me 20 years ago.

“You British are engaged in an interesting experiment in basing your economy on cutting each other’s hair,” he said. “We Germans are watching this with interest, but if it’s all the same to you, we’ll keep our manufacturing industry in the meantime.”

In its last reported year, JLR sold 579,000 cars, the majority for export, employed 43,000 staff worldwide in mostly high-skilled, well-paid jobs and even though it made a £358 million loss it still put £3.8 billion into investment. 

Faz Rafiq came back two weeks before the restart to help maximise safety and put risk assessments in place Credit: ELLIOT DONNELLY

We need to make things to make things better in this country and Land Rover is back at work providing jobs, paying tax and making folk feel worthwhile. One calculation made at the Bentley factory in Crewe a few years ago reported that every car off the line supported the lives of 120 people at the plant, at suppliers and in the wider community – Land Rover’s figures won’t be so very different.

“That first Range Rover off the line was a very proud and important moment,” says McPherson. “Like any company we’re all feeling the pinch right now and to see that Range Rover coming off the line, it was brilliant, it was success, we’re rolling again.”

“I live near the plant,” said Hickin. “And I’ll tell you what a great feeling it was when the car transporters started running out of the gates. We’re back.”

Indeed they are.

For tips and advice, visit our Advice section, or sign up to our newsletter here

To talk all things motoring with the Telegraph Cars team join the Telegraph Motoring Club Facebook group here

A-Z Car Finder